2. I don't always finish his books, but I always get a kick out of Chuck Palahniuk. His signature novel Fight Club established him as a guy's guy kind of writer, and he still carries an aura of sweat and blood and testosterone (not to mention soap). Give the guy credit for throwing curveballs at his readers, because several of his follow-up works (like Diary and the new Tell-All) seem to lavish in a feminine sensibility. Tell-All is a send-up of vintage Hollywood, featuring a pampered aging movie actress and the allegedly dubious literary legacy of Lillian Hellman. Honestly, the book baffles me, and I had to stop reading it because I felt I did not know enough about the era it is parodying to understand the references. And yet, even this slap in the face to Palahniuk's sweaty male following does not seem to hurt his sales (nor has the author's revelation that he is gay) I don't always finish Chuck Palahniuk's books, but I will always be fascinated by his mystique, and curious about what the hell weird book he's going to write next.
I wish it were possible for me to write about difficult political issues without hearing in my head the exhausted groans of so many, many people I know who react to any type of political discussion the way they'd react to a pinprick. I have many political beliefs -- I proudly call myself a pacifist, a libertarian, a moderate progressive -- but perhaps my most deeply-held political belief is this: civil debate is always a good thing. Talking about politics is not a waste of time, and it doesn't have to devolve into the familiar noise of, as songwriter Stephen Stills once so aptly put it, "hooray for our side".
Not long ago a friend who writes for Litkicks asked me what kind of articles I'd like to see in the future. I said that I'd like more topical relevance, more political/social engagement (I said this partly because I knew this writer was highly knowledgeable in this area). But her response showed that I'd tripped some kind of trigger by mentioning the word "political". She wrote:
I'm not a big "espouse the party ideals" kind of person.
I was very surprised by this reaction. I wrote back that I already knew this, and that this was why I'd thought her contributions might be valuable. But her response points to a popular general perception that modern political writing is equivalent to party-line hackwork. This is really a shocking and disappointing development. Of course an article that follows a party line is useless, and of course I wouldn't want to run an article like that on Litkicks. To be useful, a political article must straddle a fence. It must address both sides of a difficult issue, and reach for a synthesis that might persuade some readers to change the way they think. That's the whole point of political writing, isn't it? But I'm afraid it's become a habit for readers to automatically dismiss political debate as pointless self-congratulation. This leaves many people like me, who'd like to sincerely debate controversial and important topics and learn from the experience, with nobody to play with.
1. "Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real." A good Chronicle of Higher Education piece by Paul Bloom about what it means for humans to have the capacity to imagine. We often use terms like "imagine" and "dream" in a sort of gushy hopey way -- "follow your dreams" and all that -- but it's also worth pondering at the phenomenological level the fact that this mechanism, this remnant of existence called "imagination", has immense presence and power in our lives.
2. Very cool: a forensic astronomer has identified the meteor shower that inspired a poem by Walt Whitman. "What," Walt asks, "am I but one of your meteors?"
(On the forgotten 50th anniversary of a once-controversial convict's execution, Beat historian and Library of Congress archivist Alan Bisbort provides a sweeping summary of the prison-writing genre, and the therapeutic invention that once supported the genre. -- Levi)
Fifty years ago, on the morning of May 2, 1960, the State of California executed Caryl Chessman in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison.
For more than a decade prior to that date, Chessman had been a thorn in the state’s side, as well as a pinprick at America’s conscience and an international cause celebre. His case drew support from all corners of the globe and all areas of human endeavor, from the sacred (Pope John, Albert Schweitzer) to the profane (Marlon Brando, Steve Allen, Shirley MacLaine), from the literary (Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and, yes, William F. Buckley, Jr.) to the mundane, with petitions to the California governor to spare Chessman’s life coming from millions of people around the world who’d been touched by his case and his writings. From Brazil alone, a plea for Chessman’s life sent to Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown in March 1960 contained 2.3 million signatures, as well as offers from forty Brazilians, many of them women, to die in his place. And when he was finally killed, after 12 years on death row and eight stays of execution, riots broke out in European and Latin American cities.
As the newspaper business shrinks, the hazard of insularity increases. Three weeks ago the New York Times Book Review put Christopher Buckley's rave review of the roman a clef The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman of the International Herald Tribune on the cover, ignoring the fact that 99% of the NYTBR's readers have no need for a winking tell-all about newspaper office shenanigans. The "Up Front" column in today's Book Review features Lloyd Grove of the New York Daily News sharing gossip about Rupert Murdoch, subject of War at the Wall Street Journal by Sarah Ellison. One wonders if this type of thing might be better handled by internal email.
But a broader insularity emerges when Graydon Carter (yawn) reviews The Pregnant Widow (yawn) by Martin Amis (yawn) on this week's front cover (yawn). Sex jokes and alcohol jokes abound. Replace the name "Martin Amis" with "Christopher Hitchens" and you've got a ready-made review of Hitch-22, which will surely be lauded as a major work on the cover of the New York Times Book Review very soon (yawn). Here goes the shoveling:
Amis is one of the true original voices to come along in the last 40 years. The fizzy, smart linguistic fireworks, with their signature italicisms, riffs on the language and stunningly clever, off-center metaphors are certainly evident in "The Pregnant Widow".
(We're always excited to run a rave review on the rare occasion that one is deserved. Here's Garrett Kenyon on the latest work by a rising talent. -- Levi)
In 2005, while Americans of every stripe anxiously watched distant lands suffer the disastrous whims of our previous president, a minor miracle occurred stateside, right under our noses. That year, a young Russian-American writer named Olga Grushin published that rarest of literary accomplishments: a debut novel bearing the undeniable redolence of a modern classic. The Dream Life of Sukhanov was everything a first-novel shouldn't be: tight, timeless -- confidently executed with the subtlety and depth of a seasoned master. Some critics were so stunned by Sukhanov, they jokingly questioned whether it could really be the work of a novice. Another admitted he "felt like buying 10 copies and sending them to friends." He probably didn't. Which is unfortunate, because, by 2005, the firmament of American lit had become so reliably unremarkable that too few sets of eyes were paying attention when Sukhanov punctured the darkness and streaked across the sky.
This is going to be one of the hardest blog posts I've ever written. Not because it's painful, but because the topic is controversial, and I'm going to be arguing with a giant, and my words could be very easily misunderstood. I want to talk about Jewish identity, Israel and anti-semitism.
The occasion is this weekend's New York Times Book Review, which is titled "The Jewish Question" and features book reviews by two high-profile Jewish writers on the cover: Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius, reviewed by Harold Bloom, and two books on Martin Heidegger, Heidegger: Tne Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 by Emmanuel Faye, and Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin, reviewed by Adam Kirsch.
The "Up Front" note in today's New York Times Book Review tells us this about Christopher Buckley, who enthusiastically reviews Tom Rachman's newspaper novel The Imperfectionists on the cover today:
Although Christopher Buckley’s most recent book, “Losing Mum and Pup,” is a memoir of his parents, William and Pat Buckley, he’s known primarily as a political satirist and the author of darkly comic novels like “The White House Mess,” “Thank You for Smoking,” “No Way to Treat a First Lady” and “Boomsday.”
I'm not so sure about that. This fortunate son's career has had a couple of high points (getting kicked off his father's magazine for endorsing Barack Obama over John McCain has certainly been the peak), but his mild novelistic satires tend to be safe as milk. They're genial and accessible, and that's exactly the problem. From H. L. Mencken to Paul Krassner, the greatest satirists tend to be angry misfits. Christopher Buckley is way too smooth for the job, and it shows in the resulting work.
A few years ago I was bowled over by Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow, a bitter satire about an African dictator whose corruption has reached surreal heights and a few ragtag rebels who combat his regime. I joined in an extensive discussion of Wizard of the Crow at the Litblog Co-op, which chose the novel as its Winter 2007 selection.
Dreams in a Time of War, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's new memoir, shares an attractive cover concept with Wizard of the Crow, but otherwise could hardly feel more different. Sarcastic anger was Wizard's top note, but Dreams captures the author as a child, observant and innocent, devoid of hatred even as the emerging independent nation of Kenya dissolves into civil war around him.
"Our reason is quite satisfied, in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of every thousand of us, if it can find a few arguments that will do to recite in case our credulity is criticised by some one else. Our faith is faith in some one else's faith, and in the greatest matters this is most the case.
Our belief in truth itself, for instance, that there is a truth, and that our minds and it are made for each other, — what is it but a passionate affirmation of desire, in which our social system backs us up?"
- William James, 'The Will to Believe', 1896.
Strip down any of the hot political debates of the day -- health care, Wall Street, global warming, Afghanistan -- and what you'll find at the center is not principle but willful desire. We prove that we know this when we criticize our opponents for their shallow, self-serving views. We'll say, "they just believe that because they want to believe it". It's sometimes the only explanation that makes sense. Alas, the criticism holds up equally on all sides, as our own opponents will also be happy to point out.